Nikolai Duffy's 'Plainchant'

Plainchant (Voyages)

All day we travel and the way is hard going. For fourteen weeks and two days we have been those souls in the wilderness. But now must we pack up and be gone from this thicket. Take this way and be good. When the mountain is in view all will be well for there or thereabouts we will come across a stream and our guide will be waiting. We will rest a while and read from the Book. Only then will we move on. All of our progress depends on the will of others. It is imperative that one’s boots are comfortable.

O Lord, hear me, Lord, hear my prayer.

Each day the blending of voices in this hiding hole, the sound of my soul, of all that I am and must be. And all these voices together in such a small space, so close to my heart. How we come together is singular and perilous.

Help, Lord, or we perish.

One afternoon, it was the middle of October, the sky was leaden and broke over itself and then us. We walked in furrows along the edges of what once were crops. Four flocks of crows, not always easy to make out, took their own paths between the fields and trees. When they nestled among the leaves all for a moment seemed gone.

‘O Lord, Lord, this night and all these nights the long lasting of my prayer.’

For long hours already we have walked north along byways while they lasted and then, when they gave out, we have taken to the mud. Let it be remembered how we have travelled, talked, eaten and slept with a chorus almost constantly in our ears.

You have redeemed us, Lord God of Truth.

And then this night, suddenly and without seeming spur: all this history, once learnt by rote, by stern necessity; long desks stained with wax and ink and the scribe of human hands, all these long hours of learning the fabric of what I already believed and knew without need for counsel the way a voice encountered on an otherwise unassuming day carries with it a name in your heart.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

When going our separate ways at the mossy stones, knowing things I did not perhaps or just the anxieties of his name, our guide held me by the shoulder, the coarse wool of his cowl brushing my cheek in that damp breeze, his palm pressed like glass to my shoulder, and said, ‘Please be careful.’ I looked at his face, hair whitened by sky and skin sodden with salt. I said, ‘Believe me, I am.’ And sitting by a gorse bush soon after I heard his words again and I knelt down and I prayed.

*Nikolai Duffy teaches at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has published various poems essays, and reviews in various magazines and journals. His chapbook, the little shed of various lamps, was published by Red Ceilings Press in September 2011.

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